Iraqis Cast Their Votes, Despite Violence
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Jan 30, 9:26 AM (ET)
By MARIAM FAM
BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) - Iraqis danced and clapped with joy Sunday as they voted in their country's first free election in a half-century, defying insurgents who launched eight suicide bombings and mortar strikes at polling stations. The attacks killed at least 36 people.
Polling stations officially closed as of 5 p.m., but the elecion commission said anyone still in line would be allowed to vote. An Iraqi election official said that 72 percent of eligible Iraqi voters had turned out so far nationwide.
The official, Adel al-Lami of the Independent Electoral Commission, offered no overall figures of the actual number of Iraqis who have voted to back up the claim.
After a slow start, men and women in flowing black abayas - often holding babies - formed long lines, although there were pockets of Iraq where the streets and polling stations were deserted. Iraqis prohibited from using private cars walked streets crowded in a few places nearly shoulder-to-shoulder with voters, hitched rides on military buses and trucks, and some even carried the elderly in their arms.
"This is democracy," said Karfia Abbasi, holding up a thumb stained with purple ink to prove she had voted.
Officials said turnout appeared higher than expected, although it was too soon to tell for sure. Iraqi officials have predicted that up to 8 million of the 14 million voters - just over 57 percent - would participate.
In a potentially troublesome sign, the polls at first were deserted in mostly Sunni cities like Fallujah, Ramadi and Samarra around Baghdad, and in the restive, heavily Sunni northern city of Mosul.
Clashes had erupted between insurgents and Iraqi soldiers in western Mosul. And in Baghdad's mainly Sunni Arab area of Azamiyah, the neighborhood's four polling centers did not open, residents said.
A low Sunni turnout could undermine the new government and worsen tensions among the country's ethnic, religious and cultural groups.
A Web site statement purportedly from Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group claimed responsibility for election-day attacks in Iraq, although the claim could not be verified. The Jordanian militant is said to be behind many of the suicide car-bombings, kidnappings and beheadings of foreigners in Iraq, and his group vowed to kill those who ventured out to vote.
Casting his vote, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi called it "the first time the Iraqis will determine their destiny."
Turnout was brisk in Shiite Muslim and mixed Shiite-Sunni neighborhoods. Even in the small town of Askan in the so-called "triangle of death" south of Baghdad, 20 people waited in line at each of several polling centers. More walked toward the polls.
Rumors of impending violence were rife. When an unexplained boom sounded near one Baghdad voting station, some women put their hands to their mouths and whispered prayers. Others continued walking calmly to the voting stations. Several shouted in unison: "We have no fear."
"Am I scared? Of course I'm not scared. This is my country," said 50-year-old Fathiya Mohammed, wearing a head-to-toe abaya.
At one polling place in Baghdad, soldiers and voters joined hands in a dance, and in Baqouba, voters jumped and clapped to celebrate the historic day. At another, an Iraqi policeman in a black ski mask tucked his assault rifle under one arm and took the hand of an elderly blind woman, guiding her to the polls.
In Ramadi, U.S. troops coaxed voters with loudspeakers, preaching the importance of every ballot.
The election is a major test of President Bush's goal of promoting democracy in the Middle East. If successful, it also could hasten the day when the United States brings home its 150,000 troops. More than 1,400 members of the U.S. military have died since the beginning of the Iraq war in March 2003, including a U.S. Marine killed in combat Sunday in Iraq's restive Anbar province. No details were released on the latest death.
Security was tight. About 300,000 Iraqi and American troops were on the streets and on standby to protect voters, who entered polling stations under loops of razor wire and the watchful eye of rooftop sharpshooters.
Private cars were mostly banned from the streets, forcing suicide bombers to strap explosives to their bodies and carry out attacks on foot.
The governor of the mostly Sunni province of Salaheddin, Hamad Hmoud Shagti, went on the radio to lobby for a higher turnout. "This is a chance for you as Iraqis to assure your and your children's future," he said.
Shiite Muslims, estimated at 60 percent of Iraq's 26 million people, were expected to turn out in large numbers, encouraged by clerics who hope their community will gain power after generations of oppression by the Sunni minority.
A ticket endorsed by the country's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, is expected to fare best among the 111 candidate lists. However, no faction is expected to win an outright majority, meaning possibly weeks of political deal-making before a new prime minister is chosen.
The elections will also give Kurds a chance to gain more influence in Iraq after long years of marginalization under the Baath Party that ruled the country for 34 years.
"This proves that we are now free," said Akar Azad, 19, who came to the polls with his wife Serwin Suker and sister Bigat.
Iraqis in 14 nations also held the last of three days of overseas balloting on Sunday, with officials in Australia extending polling station hours because of an earlier riot and bomb scare. More than 70 percent of the 281,000 registered overseas voters had cast a ballot, al-Lami of the Independent Electoral Commission said.
Speaking in Nigeria, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called Sunday's balloting "the first step" toward democracy. "It's a beginning, not an end," he said.
Final results of the election will not be known for seven to 10 days, but a preliminary tally could come as early as late Sunday.
One U.S.-funded election observer said early reports pointed to smoother-than-expected voting, despite the violence.
"We're hearing there has been fairly robust turnout in certain areas," said Sam Patten, a member of the Baghdad team of the International Republican Institute.
The chief U.N. adviser to Iraq's election commission, Carlos Valenzuela, also said turnout seemed to be good in most places.
"These attacks have not stopped the operations," Valenzuela said.
Asked if reports of better-than-expected turnout in areas where Sunni and Shiite Muslims live together indicated that a Sunni cleric boycott effort had failed, one of the main groups pushing the boycott seemed to soften its stance.
"The association's call for a boycott of the election was not a fatwa (religious edict), but only a statement," said Association of Muslim Scholars spokesman Omar Ragheb. "It was never a question of something religiously prohibited or permitted."
In the most deadly attack, a suicide bomber blew himself up at a polling station in western Baghdad, killing himself, three policemen and a civilian, officials said. Witness Faleh Hussein said the bomber approached a line of voters and detonated an explosives belt.
In a second suicide attack at a polling station, a bomber blew up himself, one policeman and two Iraqi soldiers. In a third suicide attack at a school in western Baghdad, three people and the bomber died, police said.
And in a fourth, at another school in eastern Baghdad, a suicide bomber killed himself and at least three others. Another five people died in other suicide attacks.
Also, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the home of Iraq's justice minister in western Baghdad in an apparent assassination attempt. The minister was not home but the attack killed one person, an Interior Ministry official said.
The rest were killed in shootings and explosions in several communities north of Baghdad.
Overall, eight of the 36 people killed were suicide bombers.
In addition, three people were killed when mortars landed near a polling station in Sadr City, the heart of Baghdad's Shiite Muslim community. Two others died when a mortar round hit a home in Amel, and a policeman died in a mortar attack on a polling station in Khan al-Mahawil, south of Baghdad.
In Mosul, the province's deputy escaped an assassination attempt, but his bodyguard was killed.